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Is an IOP right for you?

Last Modified: May 27, 2022

Family Medicine, Healthy Mind


This post was written by Caroline Braun, LCSW, clinical program manager, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute.

“IOP saved my life, and I am so thankful for the last several months. I am stronger and better because of IOP.”  - patient testimony.

Most people are not familiar with intensive outpatient programs (IOP). It’s hard to imagine how an outpatient program can be “intensive.” As such, this hidden gem of a behavioral health treatment modality is not always considered for treatment. Unfortunately, a good amount of those struggling with emotional pain miss out on this highly effective intervention. Let’s take a closer look at IOPs and discuss how clinicians provide transformational support.

What is an IOP?

IOP is considered a short-term, acute treatment. One might coin it as “outpatient bootcamp.” It is ideal for patients who feel out of control, or for those who struggle to identify where things are going “wrong.” This group treatment diverts from what some may consider therapy to be, as it is not ongoing for mental health maintenance. The goal is simple – marked improvement in as short a period of time as possible.

IOP by definition occurs at least 3 days a week, for 3 hours each. It entails a minimum of 9 hours of group therapy a week, with a maximum of 15 hours. Patients can participate for anywhere between 2-12 weeks, depending on the level of motivation, progress and need.

Who is an ideal IOP patient?

It’s quite simple to be eligible for IOP. Requirements include a mental health diagnosis(es), some impairments in functioning and insurance coverage. (Parkview offers financial assistance programming as some insurances do not reimburse for IOP services.) Many IOP patients are currently working, therefore the group sessions are offered at various times of day.

Oftentimes, there is a misconception that IOP is ideal for those struggling with debilitating mental health symptoms, however, this is not always the case. IOP is often referred to as a step down from the inpatient level of care, but this does not represent the majority of IOP patients.

What are the benefits of IOP group therapy?

 IOP fosters connection and belongingness, and patients can meet others with shared experiences and similar thinking. The IOP group milieu offers a sense of safety and security, allowing patients to “try out” their new skills in an environment that feels hopeful and non-judgmental. Being in an IOP allows for consistent feedback, not just from a trained clinician, but also from peers. It permits patients to develop the internal power to challenge negative beliefs and to make wise decisions.

How does this treatment model differ from individual counseling?

The mental health IOP treatment model focuses on building new experiences within the confines of a safe and structured group environment. Individual therapy does not always allow for patients to have peers involved during sessions. By providing emotionally correct experiences in a group context, it provides the opportunity to bond and connect with others in a meaningful and healing manner.

What does an IOP entail? What are the experiential exercises?

As described above, IOP is 3 hours of group therapy 3 days a week. A typical day of IOP consists of group check-ins, perhaps identifying if someone has a specific need to process that day. Often times the therapist will direct a specific processing activity with the help of others in the group. These activities are often called experiential interventions. This type of therapy allows patients to engage in tools or activities that can recreate specific situations from the past or present in their lives to provide a sense of healing and competence to a particular issue. Many patients have described these interventions as the highlight of the IOP experience.

For substance use groups, due to the nature of the illness, these groups include more psychoeducation and processing issues while encouraging and developing a supportive sober environment. 

What types of concerns or needs are addressed in an IOP?

IOP is offered in two treatment forms – substance use disorders and mental health disorders. The substance use groups are more focused on treating those behavioral concerns, seeking to understand why the substance is used and how it negatively impacts one’s life. Concerns typically addressed in IOP are those that produce anxiety and depression, history or present trauma, difficulty in attending to daily life, such as jobs or eating/sleeping. Those struggling with panic attacks or ruminating thought patterns, or isolation are also presenting problems often seen in IOP.

How does someone get started? Is a referral needed?

Parkview Behavioral Health Institute offers IOP treatment for all ages (child IOP is offered only in the summer months). IOP often functions in conjunction with other “maintenance” treatment, such as individual therapy and medication management. In order to get started, please call the Central Intake Line at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439 and request an assessment for IOP. The goal is to get those interested in IOP access to care within 48 hours of inquiry. A referral is not needed, but IOP requires a prior authorization from insurance, which is handled by Parkview’s team.

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